Total Wine & More in Denver. The national chain wants to expand in Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A Democratic congressman from Maryland and his brother, who together own the national Total Wine & More chain, have spent $2 million supporting a potential 2022 Colorado ballot initiative that would loosen the state’s liquor licensing laws and eventually let them open an unlimited number of Colorado stores.

U.S. Rep. David Trone and his brother, Robert, have each given about $1 million to Coloradans for Liquor Fairness, an issue committee backing Initiative 96. 

The measure hasn’t yet qualified for the November ballot — its supporters have until Aug. 8 to turn in about 125,000 valid voter signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office — but if passed it would open the door for liquor retailers to be able to open an unlimited number of stores in Colorado starting in 2037.

Right now, liquor retailers are allowed to open only three stores in Colorado. Total Wine has two stores in Colorado and a third is opening soon.

Coloradans for Liquor Fairness has also benefited from about $400,000 in spending by Colorado Fine Wines & Spirits LLC. That money was used to pay a political firm that gathers petition signatures. 

The LLC appears to be a subsidiary of Total Wine & More; its address is listed as Total Wine & More’s corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Total Wine has about 200 stores across the country. 

The Colorado Sun reached out to David Trone’s congressional office for comment. Questions from The Sun were referred to his reelection campaign and Total Wine.

Dominic DelPapa, a spokesman for Coloradans for Liquor Fairness, responded.

“David and Robert Trone do not have day to day management responsibility for the Colorado stores,” DelPapa said. “Their personal contributions to support the objectives (Initiative 96) were made at the recommendation of others.”

Total Wine & More in Denver. The national chain wants to expand in Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

When asked if the supporters of Initiative 96 are on track to qualify for the November ballot, DelPapa said “definitely.”

The Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, a trade group representing smaller, independent liquor stores across the state, opposes Initiative 96.

The organization’s leader, Chris Fine, said the measure would put his members out of business since Total Wine, which has a store each in Denver and Centennial and a third opening soon in south Lakewood, has bigger buying power and therefore can sell its products for cheaper.

Fine went so far as to call the measure “catastrophic” for independent liquor retailers in Colorado. 

But DelPapa said the goal of Initiative 96 is not to hurt independent liquor stores, but to help them compete with full-strength beer sales in grocery, convenience and big-box stores, which began in recent years. 

“Supporting this ballot measure is about correcting a gross imbalance in current law,” he said.

Initiative 96 comes after a bipartisan group of lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill with similar provisions in 2021.

Initiative 96 and the spending by the Trones and are just the latest chapter in Colorado’s yearslong liquor policy wars.

In 2016, the legislature passed a compromise bill allowing grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer starting in 2019. The measure also let retail liquor stores obtain additional licenses, a policy change that Total Wine said prompted them to come to Colorado in the first place.

A delivery truck driver guides a large order of beer into a liquor store on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Littleton. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The 2016 bill was supposed to be a long-term solution to alcohol policy in Colorado. But, less than a decade later, the policy landscape is poised to rapidly shift one again.

There are three other potential ballot measures concerning alcohol that could land on the November ballot pending their signatures being turned in by Aug. 8 and approved by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.  

Those three measures are: 

  • Initiative 121, which would let retailers who have a license to sell beer, like grocery stores, also sell wine.  
  • Initiative 122, which would open the door to third-party services delivering alcohol. 
  • Initiative 135, which would require local approval for liquor license changes in an effort to slow down grocery stores’ ability to begin selling wine in addition to beer. 

Wine in Grocery Stores is the issue committee supporting Initiative 121 and Initiative 122. The committee has raised more than $1 million, and, unsurprisingly, big donors to the group include DoorDash, Instacart, Target, and Safeway.

Supporters of initiatives 121 and 122 argue they would make buying alcohol more convenient for consumers. 

Keeping Colorado Local, an issue committee tied to the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, is opposing initiatives 96, 121 and 122. It supports Initiative 135.

The committee hadn’t reported raising any money through June 22, which is an indication Initiative 135 will lack the signatures needed to make the ballot. It can cost more than $1 million to pay signature gatherers to collect the signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot.

Fine, who leads the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, said it’s “hard to say right now” whether Keeping Colorado Local will collect enough signatures to get Initiative 135 on the November ballot. He said the members of his organization don’t have the same kind of deep pockets as the national retailers funding the other initiatives. 

“We don’t have those resources,” he said. “We have been a grassroots effort through our members and nonmembers.”

Jim Archibald, second from left, owner of Morgans Liquor, helps a customer with a beer sale on January 11, 2021 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In other words, liquor store customers are being asked to sign petition signatures as they pick up a six pack or bottle of wine.

Fine said the three initiatives his group is opposing represent “billion-dollar, out-of-state corporations who want to come in and put the mom-and-pop small business out of business.” 

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office has until Sept. 7 to announce whether groups supporting the initiatives have collected enough valid signatures to get the measures on the November ballot.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 1:53 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, to reflect additional spending by David and Robert Trone.